Undeserved mercy, unexpected grace

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” Isaiah 58:9-12

Yesterday I experienced one of the greatest kindnesses I have ever seen. It was a gift of mercy multiplied by grace.

Recently Carol and I had some new flooring installed in our home, a hard floor in the little breakfast nook and carpet in the den and stairway. Yesterday I walked down to the furniture store to pay the bill. Privately I was a little anxious because we’d already spent my annual housing allowance on other repairs and renovations. To be flat-out honest, I was suffering a bit of a private pity party. I know, I know. I shouldn’t engage in that kind of self-indulgent sulking. God has been so good to us. He is always faithful and worthy of our continuous trust. I ought not worry about such little things as paying bills. But I worry far too often, even when the Lord has provided the means to pay.

Most of my private pity parties are celebrated when I play the comparison game. When I compare myself to other people in general or other pastors in particular, it invariably drains my spiritual vitality. Pity parties invariably expose myopic vision. Whether I look good or look bad in the comparison, my eyes stray from Christ and turn inward to self. I carry a burden that isn’t mine to bear. Temporal responsibilities outweigh spiritual reality. That was my spiritual condition yesterday as I pulled out my checkbook. It wasn’t a picture of personal piety.

The clerk laid the bill facing her on the counter between us. I took a pen in my hand and waited for an amount to write on the check. Without any drama or fanfare, without raising her voice or changing her business-like tone, she announced that the bill had been paid in full.

“What?… Who?…” I stammered.

She wouldn’t tell me anything. No names. No places. No explanation. Just that the bill had been paid.

I was shocked. It was an undeserved mercy. I ought to have paid the amount due. Instead the debt I owed was removed. Someone else paid the full price.

But the clerk wasn’t finished. There was more. She wanted me to measure our kitchen floor. Whoever paid my debt also was going to provide a new kitchen floor at no charge. There were no conditions, no “ifs.” There was not a single “but.” It was a gift with no strings attached. I came to the clerk thinking she wanted something from me. Instead she had something for me.

I was speechless. Paying the bill I owed was an undeserved mercy, but adding a kitchen floor was an outrageous and unexpected grace. The prophet Isaiah would label this person a “Repairer of Broken Walls” and a “Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12).

Mercy is withholding punishment due. That’s the first mile. Exhibit #1 is Jesus’ atonement on the cross. He paid the debt we owe. He took the punishment for our sin so it didn’t fall on us. Grace is unmerited favor. It goes further than mercy. That’s the second mile. There are not conditions. There are no “ifs.” Not a single “but.” Exhibit #1 is God’s manifold blessings to us in Christ – election, justification, adoption, sealing, calling – to name a few. All provided with no strings attached. We approach God thinking he wants something from us. Instead he has something for us.

In Jesus I’ve experienced both mercy and grace. Exhibit #1 is a hallmark of my life.

This week I was privileged to experience Exhibit #2 of mercy and grace. Mercy paid the bill I incurred. Grace piled on blessings I neither sought nor expected. We were replacing a floor in my house, but God made someone a Restorer of Broken Walls in my heart. We were updating a little house on a highway, but God made an anonymous benefactor a Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Don’t feel left out. You can approach a heavenly Father and find undeserved mercy and unexpected grace. That’s what Jesus has for us. No strings attached. Some­times Jesus’ people do it, too. It can make a big difference. I know because it happened to me this week. Now that I have received the blessing of undeserved mercy and unexpected grace, I get to pass it on to others. So can you.

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Swatting mosquitoes

One of the highlights of my week is a Saturday morning men’s discipleship group. In the previous post, I wrote about how we sharpen one another as iron sharpens iron. Sometimes that process exposes hidden weaknesses to which we’ve been blind. There was such a moment about three weeks ago. Some people might call it an epiphany. For me it was an “aha” moment. It was unexpected.

Early in our conversation, one of the men raised a question about God’s covenant to Israel and how it relates to the church. I opened my Bible and waited to respond. Without pausing, the guy raised another question about end time events. I stuck a finger in my Bible to hold the place and turned to another passage. Then we were off on another question. I put a another finger in the Bible. I was looking for a unifying thread to tie the discussion together.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. These questions weren’t going anywhere. There was no direction. We were just swatting mosquitoes.

Do you have mosquitoes where you live? We have tons of the little buggers in Clarkfield. (Whoops! Sorry about that if you’re thinking of moving here.) When mosquitoes bite, we itch like crazy. We’ll all felt those ugly red welts on our skin. They’re almost always inconsequential. Bu they grab our full attention. When mosquitoes bite, we stop whatever we’re doing a scratch ourselves.

Because we know what’s coming, we often start swatting mosquitoes before they bite. Do you remember when bug lights were popular? I recall the “crack” and “zap” as bugs strayed too close to the purple light. Bugs were everywhere. But no matter how many mosquitoes we zap or swat, one thing is certain: we’ll never get them all. One dead bug is immediately replaced by ten lives ones. Sometimes the mosquitoes we swat have blood in them. Our blood. We can feel the itch. So we swat harder. But it’s no use. They keep coming back. I think hell will be full of mosquitoes.

One of my friends in Clarkfield has told me about his ancestors pioneering into this territory in the late 1800s. The wagon train arrived in Yellow Medicine County on their way west to the Dakotas. According to the story, mosquitoes were so thick here that the travelers couldn’t continue. So they stayed. And built homes. And planted crops. And dug fence posts. And raised cattle. Somewhere along the way, they figured out how to drain the local swamps to create more farmland and reduce the mosquito population.

How did the early pioneers do all that work with the swarms of mosquitoes? Maybe their work was most productive in January. Never mind that snow covered the ground and temperatures dipped to 30 degrees below zero! Productive people don’t waste much time swatting mosquitoes. If they did, the necessary work would never get done.

That morning in the men’s discipleship group, I realized we had been scratching our itches and weren’t really getting anything done. The tasks we had laid out for ourselves were forgotten while we chased pesky mosquitoes. For example, the board had appointed the Saturday morning group to audit the church’s financial records. We agreed to do it. Every Saturday for two months I brought in a stack of paperwork and set it on the table. Every Saturday for two months the papers sat neglected while we swatted mosquitoes.

Four months ago we decided to watch a video addressed to evangelizing young adults who have left the faith of their youth and no longer believe in God. A few minutes into the presentation, we ran out of time for that day and never got back to it. Six months ago we agreed to preview a discipleship curriculum on emotionally spiritual health. Not only is it unfinished, we haven’t even begun.

See the pattern? Get the picture? Instead of moving from Point A to Point B, we’ve basically gone around in circles. We have swatted mosquitoes and left the heavy tasks undone.Life change is hard work. Just talking about it won’t cut it. We have to do it, despite the mosquitoes.

I’m not saying the group has been a waste of time. Not at all! The men have done an incredible amount of work around the building. Many times the guys have stayed til noon cleaning, mowing, trimming, shoveling and repairing. On occasions we’ve moved off campus and carried out service projects in the community. Bravo! It’s been great service and great fun.

But if we’re going to knock off the status quo and impact the trajectory of the church, it’s going to take intentional, focused leadership. So we changed our format on Saturday morning. Instead of swatting mosquitoes, we agreed to begin working on the tasks we said we were going to do. As a result, the financial audit is now complete. This week we’re doing a church health study. Next week we’ll get back to the evangelism training video. Soon we will begin to preview the emotionally healthy spirituality curriculum. If you’re in the area, we’d love for you to join us. You don’t have to be part of our church or any church. We meet 7:00 a.m. Saturdays at New Life Church in Clarkfield, Minnesota.

Look out, mosquitoes! We’re draining the swamp.

Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.

Father’s Day

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Hebrews 12:9-11

The older I get, the more I respect my dad. The years provide a perspective I didn’t have when I was younger.

Dad grew up during the depression in the inner city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was the third of four sons in his family. Money was tight. While he was still in school, he contributed to the support of his family.

He met my mother in Sunday school when they were elementary students. It was his mother, not his father, who provided spiritual direction for him. His father had nothing spiritually to offer. My parents married young against the counsel of mom’s parents. They were just 19 and 18. But they worked hard at their marriage.

When I was young, we all were active in church. But dad didn’t verbalize his faith much. I probably talked enough for all of us. I read the Bible voraciously and had a prodigious faith when I was young. I think maybe dad didn’t know what to do with me.

He certainly tried to build into his children’s lives in ways his own dad, my grandfather, hadn’t been able to do. His dad died about 60 years ago. I never knew my grandfather.

Dad tried to teach me to play ball, but I was a terrible athlete. They tell me I used to stand in right field with my back to the plate. Dad tried to teach me how to work on the family car. There was only one car back then, of course. He had once taken a car apart and put it back together. But I wasn’t the least bit interested in learning mechanics. Dad is an accomplished woodworker. He built beautiful wooden toys and fine furniture such as shelves and tables and chairs. He even made each of us sturdy wagons to haul our kids around at the fair, and later our grand-kids. More than once someone has offered to buy our wagon. It’s not for sale.

Dad was a stern disciplinarian. When we were kids, we didn’t think he was always fair. He had a bit of temper when we were younger. He has matured. So have we. In hind­sight, I can see how hard he tried. And I respect him for that.

Thanks, Dad!

Burying a son

My dad’s 86th birthday is this weekend. It won’t be an especially joyful occasion for dad. About a week ago he lost his youngest child, my brother Darrell. Darrell died at age 56 from complications to pancreatic cancer.

Mom turned 85 a couple weeks ago. For awhile we wondered if Darrell might die on her birthday. Instead he lingered a few more days. These were hard days for my parents. They were basically housebound 500 miles away from Darrell’s hospice house. Their fare­well was accomplished with a phone call, although Darrell was unable to speak. He communicated only by grunts and gestures which were relayed by our older sister Pam.

After Darrell’s memorial service in South Carolina, I spent three days with my parents this week in Ohio. It wasn’t especially a deep or spiritual time, although we did pray together a couple times. We didn’t tell stories about Darrell or look at any old pictures of him when he was healthy. Maybe that will come later. Dad is stoic and self-contained. He wants to move on. Mom is tender and open, but quiet. I know the pain of losing a brother, but they have endured the crushing experience of burying a son. That’s a much greater loss.

The Scriptures provide numerous episodes of parents who lost their children to untimely death. They include sons and daughters of both the rich and famous as well as the poor and obscure. It isn’t a rare phe­nomenon. The parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, lost a son to murder.

Naomi lost two sons to death and her husband as well. King David lost multiple children to death by murder and the judgment of God. Jacob mourned the death of his son Joseph, but Joseph turned up alive in Egypt many years later.

A few of the children who died were subsequently restored to their parents. They include some of the most unique stories in the Bible. Elijah raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24). Ironically, we are told neither the name of the woman nor her son. Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-37). Again, their names are not provided. Jesus raised the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue ruler (Matthew 9:18-26). These are the exceptions.

For the rest of us, death is final in this world. The mothers of Bethlehem mourned the loss of their baby boys by the sword of King Herod. But the children were not restored to their parents. Not yet.

Abraham almost lost his son Isaac in a very strange way. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering on an altar (Genesis 22:1-2). Amazingly, Abraham obeyed without hesitation. He believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. That’s incredible faith. At the last instant, when Abraham’s knife was in the air to slay Isaac as a sacrifice, the Lord stopped the procedure and rewarded Abraham’s faith.

At first it seems like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac doesn’t make any sense. Why would God command Abraham to do that? The initial answer is that it was a test of Abraham’s faith. But the meaning goes much deeper than that. The typology wouldn’t be fulfilled for two thousand years until God himself sacrificed his own son Jesus on the cross. This time the Lord didn’t stop the procedure. Jesus died on the cross. God buried his own son.

Parents bury their children because they lose them. But God buried his son because he gave him (John 3:16). A few dead children were restored to their parents. Their resurrection is a type (a picture) of what is yet to come for all in Christ. Because he lives, we too shall live. Such is the hope of a parent who has buried a child.

Resurrection. To Abraham life after death was a belief and a hope. The resurrection of Jesus made it a reality. He was the firstfruits of resurrection. We will follow later in due time. In the meantime, resurrection remains our belief and our hope. Parents still bury their children with the hope of a future resurrection. When Christ returns, he will make that resurrection a reality.